Monday, February 16, 2009

Poppy Shakespeare

Sometimes it may seem that I read no contemporary books. Certainly I rarely write about them. Once upon a time I was a freelance book reviewer (for real journals, not my book journal); but I eventually lost interest and found that I’d rather read classics, or the “ quirky" tomes published by Overlook Press, Virago, Persephone, or Capuchin Classics, than sit down at my computer and write about mediocre new books. Did my snarkiness help the book industry? No.

So what a thrill when I come across a contemporary book like Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare, a madly satiric, poignant, and witty novel about madness which I found so addictive I could barely tear myself away to watch Battlestar Galactica (date night at our house). That says it all.

N, the narrator, has been mad all her life. She is an out-patient at a day program at a mental hospital, where she sits around the common room smoking cigarettes and exchanging jibes with Astrid Arse-Wipe and Middle-Class Michael, occasionally attending “life goals” groups where she learns to make lists of pros and cons (heavily weighted by her desired result, of course). She has spent her life shuttled around from one home or hospital to another. The day program has been as good as it gets. She calculates like a canny stockbroker to earn straight 6es on her yearly mental health assessment, because she needs her “mad money” and it’s hard work to remain an out-patient.

But life changes for N when she is assigned as a guide to Poppy Shakespeare, the new patient.

Poppy doesn’t want to be mad. She has been rounded up and dragged into the day program, a fiasco that resulted from a multiple-choice personality test she takes on the first day of a New Careers program. And she can’t persuade anyone she’s not mad. The “mental health” lawyers won’t work for her unless she’s on the “mad money” register.

It is N's original, vulerable, but pitch-perfect comic voice that makes this novel perfect. ("You know what I'm saying" is included in every insecure but incisive paragraph.)

“‘So you neurotic, psychotic, or what?’ I said, like just making conversation. Ask most dribblers what’s wrong, they’re that fucking grateful, they’ll talk till their throats is raw, but Poppy just stopped where she was, head down, not moving so much as a muscle and she didn’t say nothing for maybe a minute then, I can’t describe it like anything else, she turned to me and gave me this look like I’d pissed on her mother’s grave. ‘Let’s just get one thing straight,’ she said. “I Am Not a Nutter. There is Nothing Whatever Wrong with My Head. Alright?’”

To N Poppy's wish to escape the mad community is madness. But the story of N's and Poppy's friendship and Poppy's desperate attempt to escape the day program are touching and absorbing. It is ironic that Poppy is a compulsory patient just as the new Minister of Madness is threatening to privatize the health system and pressuring hospitals to “cure” patients and release them into the community.

A great book.


Ellen said...

Dear Kathy,

I've told WWTTA about the blog and book. I also said the name Poppy has real resonance with young women today. In _Happy-Go-Lucky_ Sally Hawkins's heroine is called Poppy. There is a Poppy who writes modern gothics.

It is the poised tone that carries such books.

Thanks for this. It helped provide a little cheer.


Mad Housewife said...

I haven't seen Happy-Go-Lucky but love Mike Leigh.

Poppy may be a popular chick lit name, too.

Alexandra Pringle said...

I was so happy to see this review of Poppy Shakespeare as I am the editor of the book! But I also wanted to let you know that we are starting a small library of reprints called The Bloomsbury Group (I am Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury) and one of our launch titles is DE Stevenson's Mrs Tim Christie (which we shall publish under its original title of Mrs Tim of the Regiment). Its new life is entirely due to your blog. Thank you so much for alerting me to this wonderful book! It will be published in the UK in August and in the US early next year.

Mad Housewife said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mad Housewife said...

I'm thrilled that you're reissuing Mrs. Tim of the Regiment. What a delight for new readers. I'm pleased and surprised to have played a part. Please keep me posted on new titles. I'm glad Bloomsbury is branching out into reprints!